Tuymans’s painting, one of a series of works related to the history of the Congo, is based on a photograph of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). A visual reminder of an unresolved conflict in history that began with Belgian colonial rule and proceeded to Congolese independence and ongoing civil war, the painting was inspired by a debate, belatedly begun in Belgium in 2000, about the events surrounding Lumumba’s assassination thirty-nine years earlier. But this stark portrait tells us nothing about Lumumba or Africa. By implication, the portrait leads our attention to Belgium’s unspoken historical role in colonialism, and to the country’s conflicted consciousness as it confronts this disputatious past.
If, as Tuymans has said, the subject of this work is history, then the object is a vessel of historical memory. Working from his own visual memory of Lumumba’s photograph rather than from the photograph itself, the artist re-created his subject through subtle changes. Lightening the shade of Lumumba’s skin and altering the look in his eyes, Tuymans challenges the stereotype of the black man as “savage,” a source of threat and apprehension. Is Lumumba, seen in lighter tones, a more “civilized” man? Tuymans seems to be asking us. Here, Lumumba’s bemused gaze seems to question the very myth that he has become.
Tuymans’s selection of this particular image recalls a mid-nineteenth-century European tradition in which vast archives of documentary photographs were built up as part of the control and surveillance of the colonized populations. Power, secrecy, and control laws stand at the origin of those archives. It is this ideological connotation of photography that Tuymans subverts by addressing it so forthrightly. The artist goes beyond photography’s indexical representation, critiquing and twisting its original function in order to intertwine the representational contents of history, myth, and memory. Tuymans inspires the viewer to ponder the creation of cultural identity through political history. Through Lumumba’s gaze we see the artist gazing at history.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art , MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 361.